12 July 2017

The Four Personas of Culture

One of the biggest challenges for the modern-day enterprise is to imbue curiosity and agility as a daily way of working. Curiosity fuels the continuous cycle of iteration and realignment that is essential in a dynamic enterprise. Whereas agility enables companies to move quickly and decisively in anticipating and taking advantage of opportunity, while collaborating to avoid negative and even catastrophic consequences of change. Together, agility and curiosity are essential for growth and sustainability.

Like a hum of birds in continuous and purposeful flow, curiosity and agility create synergy—the X-factor of Emergent organisations that enables them to continuously evolve.

When curiosity and agility come together the game changes. Culture begins to flourish as people become more conscious of their environment and each other. And yet, with such a powerful combo at our disposal—why is it so challenging for organisations to engage and sustain meaningful interaction with customers and stakeholders? 

Navigating culture blind spots

The cultural mode of an enterprise and its related blindspots present significant operational challenges. Notwithstanding, leaders become fixated on being the most agile or the most innovative enterprise, prioritising one aspect over the other.

Here’s the thing: while agility can enhance position, speed-to-market, even fame—without curiosity culture is always lacking something. Consider the enterprise that develops mastery in adapting to external forces and assimilates trends and changes within its environment, in a highly agile manner, yet lacks ability to conceive from within. Conversely, the innately creative and curious enterprise that catalyses innovation, yet who lacks agility, is like the beautiful hunter Narcissus from Greek mythology—staring in the pond at its own reflection, at risk of becoming entranced by the beauty of its own invention, never fulfilling its potential.

The cultural mode of an enterprise can be determined by its degree of agility and curiosity, providing a starting point for innovation.

To identify cultural blindspots and potential risks of change in your enterprise you must first know what kind of culture you have and ultimately, what you’re striving for.

The Culture Quadrant

As a way of highlighting the interplay between agility and curiosity I developed the Culture Quadrant—a diagnostic matrix that tracks the two elements to outline four personas of culture and their associated traits. Through pinpointing these modes the Culture Quadrant reveals culture blind spots and any inherent issues that might exist, providing organisations with an overall picture of culture, potential risks of change, and an optimal path for transformation.

Whether your mojo is to regulate, wayfind, assimilate or evolve—each Culture Quadrant persona has a Yin and Yang aspect, defined as its state of integration and state of disintegration. In a state of integration, culture is healthy from an environmental and operational perspective. In a state of disintegration, the survival and growth potential of the enterprise is inhibited.

Let’s look at the four Culture Quadrant personas in detail.


Controller is a hierarchical and regulated mode of operation with an overt cultural energy of isolation, due to its siloed function. Controller maintains stature and presence by taking advantage of changing dynamics in its environment. It is known to develop exceptional pioneering capabilities, influencing and mobilising specialised resource with ease. As is often the case with institutionalised innovation, be it technology or process to improve customer and stakeholder experience—finding effective ways to streamline innovation for collective benefit can be extraordinarily complex in Controller cultures.

At best, Controller puts in place effective systems of control that regulate dynamic workflow and function. At worst, Controllers are autocratic and risk averse, jealously guarding accumulated power at the expense of stakeholders and community. As Controller learns to establish essential connections between siloes and co-create as an interdependent collective, Controller cultures flourish.

Real-world examples of Controllers include, Google, Starbucks and Australia Post.


Pioneer is a curious and experimental mode of culture, the hallmark of social enterprise, artisans, and makers at the bleeding edge of social and technological advancement. The utility and invention of Pioneer cultures make it a formidable contender in the innovation race, and its dynamism and experimental nature disrupt status quo and transform the human condition, as we know it. Pioneer loves secrecy and prefers a ‘big reveal’ of its latest innovation, as opposed to co-creating with stakeholders and community. Isolated by its own context, the blindspot of Pioneer is a ‘hit and miss’ approach, often losing more than it wins.

Typically, as Pioneer cultures grow they become less agile. Their challenge is to decentralise innovation and catalyse disruptive capability, leading and leveraging as a cohesive network-of-networks. Pioneers that learn to model ecocentric and collaborative behaviours transform their growth and impact.

Real-world examples of Pioneer cultures include Canva, Nike and Microsoft.


Mimic is the most agile of all Culture Quadrant personas with exceptional mastery in replication and assimilation. Mimics are loved by society for their rapid adaptability and how they emulate trends affords them a high-degree of success and influence. The growth trajectory of Mimic can be extraordinary, yet it demands vast amounts of energy to maintain presence. True to its name, Mimic is essentially a copycat that lacks ability to conceive of itself. This reliance upon external inputs to thrive means that where no stimuli exists (nothing to copy) Mimic cultures flatline.

At best, Mimic culture emulates the best practices and trends of its time. At worst, it is like a cancer, consuming the energy and vitality of its host until there is nothing left. Mimics that learn to pioneer have extraordinary potential to mobilise and leverage a community of advocates, innovating products and services that are often better than the original.

Real-world examples of Mimics include, Zara, ASOS and Aldi.


Synergist is the highly agile and curious poster child of the Emergent paradigm—a tribal and community-centric mode of operation that thrives as an interdependent ecosystem, or ‘system of systems’. In many ways, Synergist is writing the future and it resembles a movement, represented by the myriad conscious leaders, connectors and innovators in business and society.

The mode of Synergist culture is co-creation, thriving in a continuous cycle of innovation, transformation and realignment. At best, Synergist catalyses engagement and value for its entire ecosystem. At worst, lack of invested accountability and cohesion to a higher-purpose result in emergent chaos—when the community scales and loses vital connection to the sum of its parts.

Real-world Synergists include, Patagonia, LEGO and Huddle Design.

What kind of culture do you have?

When the cultural mode of an enterprise has been identified on the Culture Quadrant, the next step is to assess its state of integration and disintegration. Understanding this can help you implement effective strategies that minimise change risk and improve the overall culture, wellbeing and sustainability of your enterprise.

In most cases, the organisations I work with display one Culture Quadrant mode overtly, with traits of the other personas presenting in specific situations, depending on environmental challenges, context and focus. Importantly, no two cultures are alike. Ultimately, the insight the Culture Quadrant reveals empowers an enterprise with tools and techniques to realise its full potential—a culture where people can thrive.

Is your organisation a Controller, Pioneer, Mimic or Synergist?

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